Mata Ikan

19 05 2008

Back then in sixties and seventies, vacations were, for most Singaporeans, a luxury. And for most of us who were fortunate enough to take vacations, the idea of a vacation wasn’t flying off to some exotic overseas destination, but renting a holiday cottage of sorts by the sea in Singapore’s east.

I had the good fortune of having parents who being civil servants, had access to some of the resources of the civil service. A favourite of my parents being the civil service holiday bungalows in the rustic village of Mata Ikan, not far from Somapah village, off Upper Changi Road. Many of the old villages in the area have since given way to the runway of Changi airport. The only information I have been able to find about the area seems to be at www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=440055.

There isn’t much I can remember of the area except the market in Somapah village, the bungalows which sat on stilts, the Mata Ikan river, from which you could get a rich catch of catfish, and the muddy seabed … What I remember most was the very high wooden slide in the compound of the government bungalows from which gave me a fair share of splinters.

On the tall slide, Mata Ikan Nov 1971

On the tall slide, Mata Ikan Nov 1971

Mata Ikan Nov 1971

Mata Ikan Nov 1971

Mata Ikan 1973

Mata Ikan 1973





“Lenin’s Tomb” at Raffles Place

17 01 2020

Constructed in an effort to beautify the city, the “underground” car park topped with a roof garden that came to define the Raffles Place of post-independent Singapore, came in for some criticism as it was nearing completion. Likened to Lenin’s Mausoleum, its critics even went so far as to suggest that it be used for the repose of Singapore’s distinguished citizens. Despite the early reservations, Raffles Place Garden – as it was christened, was a quite a joy to behold. With its floral clock, fountain and a backdrop provided by Raffles Place’s characterful buildings, the garden became what could be thought of as the 1960s equivalent of an instagram-worthy spot.

Christmas 1966 on the roof garden at Raffles Place, with Robinson’s behind.

That Raffles Place was certainly a place I connected with.  My visits there usually coincided with the preparations for the year-end season of giving, which invariably led to Robinsons Department Store’s quite memorable toy department. Large and well stocked, the department was every child’s dream. I looked forward to visiting each year, even if that meant having to catch sight of Father Christmas, whom I was terrified of. Out of Robinson’s famous Christmas lucky dip, I once pulled out an orange coloured battery-operated submarine. It was a prized toy, even if I had to contend with using it once every three months during our seaside holidays at Mata Ikan – in the holiday bungalow’s bathtub!

The promise of good food was another thing to look forward to when visiting Raffles Place. Makan time would on a special occasion, lead me to the Honeyland Milk Bar at Battery Road, which was just around the square’s northeast corner. There was always a sense of anticipation that I got as the parting of the café’s heavy doors delivered a cold rush of Worcestershire sauce scented air. The café’s chicken pies were to die for. I enjoyed the pies with a dash of tomato ketchup – which I never could quite manage to cajole out from the sauce bottle without some help.

Raffles Place’s little “corners”, which included Change Alley, added much to area’s unique charm. “Chin Charlie” to me and many non-English speakers like my maternal grandmother, it was a fascinating place to wander through and one of the places that made the Singapore of the 1960s, Singapore. The famous alley, which featured in films and in a BBC newsreel,  seemed to be always be full of life and for a while, laughter – emanating from numerous laughing bags being set off in the alley by its many toy vendors as a form of advertisement. Popular at the end of the 1960s, the toys took the form of tiny drawstring bags that contained sound boxes.

The Raffles Place end of Change Alley, 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

Little did I know it as a young child, but the laughter, along with the Raffles Place that I knew and loved would soon to see lasting change. A tragic fire in November 1972, which resulted in the loss of nine lives, also saw to Robinsons losing its iconic Raffles Chambers home it had occupied since 1941. The subsequent move – of Robinson’s to Specialists Centre in Orchard Road – also severed the store’s connection with the square, which could be traced back to 1858.

Raffles Chambers – before Robinson’s moved in.

By the time of the fire, the area had in fact already been in the cusp of change. At the glorious waterfront – Raffles Place “backyard”, the grand old turret-topped 1923 built Ocean Building had come down in 1970 to make way for a towering third. The 1923 Ocean – the second to stand on the site – was the forerunner of a building frenzy that would shape Singapore’s bund at Collyer Quay, which by the 1930s possessed a quality that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment. The second Ocean’s demise set a reversal of the process in motion. Two more of the waterfront’s grand 1920s edifices erected a year after the Ocean, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers and Maritime (ex-Union Insurance) Building, would also make way for the new.

John Little’s Building early in 1946 – when it was used temporarily as the Shackle Club [source: Lizzie Ellis on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)].

On the square, one of its famous landmarks – John Little’s Building – was sold in 1973. This would lead to Raffles Tower (now Singapore Land Tower) being put up in its place. Incidentally, Raffles Tower when it was still under construction,  was the scene of a dramatic aerial helicopter rescue – the first in Singapore’s history. The rescue on 21 October 1980 came at a time when 19 out of tower’s intended 48 floors were completed. A fire broke out on the 18th floor, which left a crane operator stranded on a tower crane perched on the top of the uncompleted building some 60 metres above ground. The daring rescue effort saw the operator plucked from the crane’s boom to safety by the crew of a RSAF Bell 212 helicopter .

Singapore’s first helicopter aerial rescue was over Raffles Place on 21 October 1980.

Raffles Place would also lose its car park and roof garden not so long after this incident. A well-loved feature by that time, the garden’s lifespan fell short of the “many, many decades” that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had predicted it would last when he opened it in November 1965. The construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system just two decades later, meant that the structure and its garden, went the way of Raffles Place’s older icons in mid-1984.

Raffles Place – still with its garden – in the late 1970s. The former Mercantile Bank can be seen at the end of the square.

The building of the MRT also took out the other landmarks that could be identified with old Raffles Place. The former Mercantile Bank (built 1929) was one. The building, which marked the square’s southern end, had been purchased by Chartered Bank to house its Singapore headquarters while its 6 Battery Road HQ at the square’s opposite end, was being rebuilt. Chartered Bank’s new premises at 6 Battery Road, which was put up at the start of the 1980s incorporated a provision for the MRT to be built at a time when the question of whether the MRT should be built was still being deliberated.

Over a CBD in transition at the end of the 1970s. Renewal, redevelopment and reclamation would change the face of a part of Singapore that at the point of independence, had a certain old world charm (photo source: Panoramio).

Raffles Place today, wears a look of modernity reflective of Singapore’s impressive progress since the car park and its roof garden was unveiled. Cold as it may have become enclosed by the wall of towering symbols of success, Lenin’s tomb it is not nor a place of repose for the distinguished – other than the distinguished past. There are the reminders of the square that was replaced if one looks hard enough – found in the names that are retained and in some of the new structures that have come to define the new Raffles Place.


 

Raffles Place over the years

 

 

Raffles Place stands on the site of a hill that was levelled in 1822 to provide filler for the reclamation in way of the south bank of the Singapore River that provided the grounds for Boat Quay.

 

Raffles Place in the late 1800s. The garden seen in this G. R. Lambert print was one of Commercial Square’s early features, which was laid out, planted with trees and enclosed by a low wall and a wooden fence in the mid-1830s. The marble drinking water fountain seen in the photograph was the one presented by John Gemmill in 1864. The donation involved more than just the fountain as it required the laying of pipes from Mr Gemmill’s property at Mount Erskine to Raffles Place. The fountain originally had metal cups chained to it. The fountain, which now stands outside the National Museum of Singapore, found its way to Empress Place, before being moved to the museum in the 1970s.

 

Gemmill’s fountain – at the National Museum of Singapore.

 

Another G R Lambert print from the late 1800s. Originally Commercial Square, it was named Raffles Place by the Municipal Commission in 1858.

 

By the 1900s Raffles Place was well developed into a commercial and banking centre. This postcard view of Raffles Place in the 1930s shows several banking institutions established around in the square such as (from left to right): Mercantile Bank of India, Banque de l’Indochine (French Bank) and Yokohama Specie Bank (YS Bank in Meyer Chambers).

 

Preparations for war, 1941. A machine gun pillbox seen in front of a John Little’s Building fitted with brick barricades.

 

Air raid wardens are dousing an incendiary bomb in Raffles Place in 1941 as part of a regular weekly mass demonstration to make Singaporean’s bomb conscious and informed (source: Library of Congress – no known copyright restrictions).

A bomb damaged Raffles Place following the first Japanese air raid on Singapore on 8 Dec 1941.

 

Raffles Place in the 1950s, by which time stores such as John Little – established in the 1840s and Robinson’s, founded in the 1850s, were already very well established and were household names.

 

Plans for a garden at Raffles Place were first announced in Nov 1963 during a State Government policy address made by Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak to the Legislative Assembly – the first with Singapore a State in Malaysia and the last ever. Work commenced on what was to be a 150 car capacity underground car park topped by a roof garden in July 1964. By the time LKY opened the carpark and roof garden in Nov 1965, Singapore was an independent country. LKY expressed his disappointment that the car park had to be elevated a metre above the ground for ventilation and access and observed that some had likened one end of the structure to Lenin’s tomb. He also noted that there were also suggestions that “we might perhaps repose the precious remains of some of our more distinguished citizens in one end of this square”.

 

Mr David Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966, which made its rounds around the internet in 2012. The photograph shows the roof garden and looks towards the northern end of the square with the Chartered Bank Chambers on Battery Road at the far end (source: David Ayres on Flickr).

 

Another northward view – this one in 1969 courtesy of Mr Kim Hocker (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The five-foot-way along John Little’s Building in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

Trishaw riders outside Oriental Emporium at Raffles Place in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

A view of the car park from street level with a staircase to the roof garden (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The Malacca Street end of the car park and its location today.

A view towards the north end with MRT construction work, 1987 (National Archives of Singapore).

 

A northward view today. The John Little’s Building is replicated on the main entrances to the MRT.

 

A southward view of Raffles Place today.

 

The Singapore Land tower (R) – where the rescue of the crane operator took place in 1980.

 

One Raffles Place – which occupies the site of Robinson’s and Meyer Chambers.


 





The machine gun pillbox café at Changi Beach

10 11 2017

How I miss my outings as a child to Changi Beach. High tides occurring on a Sunday morning often meant a trip to the beach for a dip. Trips to Changi Beach, which meant a long but scenic drive in days when the word “expressway” did not feature on a Singaporean driver’s vocabulary, were always looked to with much excitement and were not without preparation.

Changi Beach, 1965

A day at  Changi Beach, 1965.

Mum would often prepare a delicious tiffin. Mee goreng or chicken curry served with local versions of the French baguette were my favourites. Dad would ask to have his thermos filled with kopi-o from the nearby kopitiam. Straw hats and mats, tiny pails and spades for sand play, inflatable floats, my grandma, my sis and me could then be packed into the trusty Austin 1100 for the drive – part of which featured the seemingly never-ending and still very rural Tampines Road.

Picnics out of the Car Boot, Changi Beach, late 1960s.

Changi Beach had then a very different feel. It was uninterrupted for miles, running from the spit at the mouth of Changi Creek to the cliffs at Tanah Merah Besar. Ketapang (sea-almond), acacia, sea apple, coconut, and casuarina trees lined the beach and its popular stretches were lined with sampans for hire, and within sight of that, inner truck tire tubes for use as floats and deck chairs were displayed – also for hire.

Under an acacia tree, Changi Beach, early 1970s.

Sampans for hire (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

One of the things also associated with the beach that I was recently reminded of from a posting of photographs by Mrs Lies Strijker-Klaij, were the beach-side cafes. Housed in wooden shacks – much like those now found in some beaches in the region – they served the delicious Malay fare and were popular with the beach crowd as were the mobile food vendors who made an appearance. The fish and chips van was a regular, as were several bell-ringing ice-cream vendors and the Indian men balancing delicious a tray of vadai or a rack of kacang putih.

The vadai vendor with a tray balanced on his head. The wooden base opened up as a folding support (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

A vadai vendor and a beach-side café similar to the ones I remember at Changi Beach in the background (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

Thinking about all that also reminds me of the machine gun pillboxes that lined the beach in my earlier years. Built to fend off would be invaders, they decorated the southward facing coastline. Many were filled with rotting matter and stank to high-heaven. There was also a pillbox along the beach that was a café operated out of. I don’t quite remember it but I recall my parents making reference to it as “chipot”. I never quite figured its name out, that is until quite recently. My dad explained that it was a name parents used for the want of a better name,  derived from how the Chinese lady who ran the café would repeated an order for a pot of tea, “chi pot” – a combination of the colloquial Hokkien word for one and the English pot!

A Pillbox at Changi Beach.

A similar pillbox at Mata Ikan in the 1970s.





Tanah Merah, 1965

22 05 2017

Old photographs, of much cherished places that are no longer with us in Singapore, are a godsend. They help me to hold on to my sanity in a country that due to the relentless pace of change, feels much less like home with each passing day.

A set of such photos arrived in my inbox over the weekend. Taken in 1965 and sent by Ian Brooks, the photos are first in colour that I have come across of the Tanah Merah Besar area of my early childhood. The photos are especially precious for two reasons. One, the show a house perched on a set of cliffs (yes, cliffs!) and two, they also show one of many machine-gun pillbox that were then a fairly common sight.

The area in which these were taken – where the seaward end of Tanah Merah Besar Road turned northeast or left into Nicoll Drive and right or southwest to Wing Loong Road – was a gateway into a most magical of places, the Tanah Merah of my early childhood. That Tanah Merah was one of seaside kampungs, coconut groves, beach-side villas – one of which belonged to Singapore’s first Chief Minister, David Marshall – and holiday bungalows (see also: Once Tanah Merah and also Mata Ikan) and one that provided me with some of the most memorable moments of my early childhood.

Sadly, nothing is left of it except for a Tanah Merah Besar Road that now ends at a fence (belonging to Changi Airport’s western perimeter), and the memories of a world that if not for the photographs that still exist, would surely fade away.





The gun battery set up for the defence of Singapore at Pengerang

1 11 2016

Hidden in the vegetation on a knoll just by the Tanjung Pengelih Jetty in Pengerang is the little that remains of a 6″ gun battery that was set up for the defence of Singapore in the 1930s. The battery was one of several that came under the Changi Command. Positioned at the southeastern tip of the Malay Peninsula, the battery, along with others at Pulau Tekong and Changi, protected the eastern approach to the Straits of Johor and thus the Naval and Air Bases constructed up the strait at Seletar. All that now seems left of the battery – the guns were destroyed by the British just before Singapore fell, at least from their accessibility to the public, are the positions where Defence Electric Lights or DEL’s were placed.

Structures belonging to a DEL position at Tanjung Pengelih in Pengerang.

Structures belonging to a DEL position at Tanjung Pengelih in Pengerang.

One of the DEL positions, with part of its roof collapsed.

One of the DEL positions, with part of its roof collapsed.

DEL’s, powerful searchlights,  supplemented coastal artillery. They could be used to search for and pick out targets, a practice that apparently had been used by the Royal Artillery since the late 1800s. These searchlights would be mounted in fortified positions closer to the coast and housed in concrete emplacements . Essential electrical power would be provided by generators housed in well-protected engine rooms, often built deep into the terrain.

A view from the inside of the DEL emplacement.

A view from the inside of the DEL emplacement.

Singapore's Defences, 1937 (Source: Between 2 Oceans (2nd Edn): A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971 by Malcolm H. Murfett, John Miksic, Brian Farell, Chiang Ming Shun.

Singapore’s Defences, 1937 (source: Between 2 Oceans (2nd Edn): A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971 by Malcolm H. Murfett, John Miksic, Brian Farell, Chiang Ming Shun).

Such would have been the case with the searchlight positions in Pengerang. Its remnants include both searchlight emplacements and an engine room, as well as supporting infrastructure such as accommodation blocks and storage rooms. These are all placed on the small hill that lies in the shadow of Bukit Pengerang or Johore Hill, on which the two 6″ guns of the battery were positioned.

A 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

An extract from a 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

An observation post above the DEL emplacement.

An observation post above the DEL emplacement.

I managed to join a visit to the site over the weekend orgainsed by a grouping of urban exploration enthusiasts who collectively brand themselves as the Temasek Rural Exploring Enthusiasts or TREE. For the visit, the group had tied up with guides and representatives from several Malaysian organisations and groups. These were the Muzium Tentera Darat (Army Museum) in Port Dickson, the Yayasan Warisan Johor (Johor Heritage Foundation), the Malaya Heritage Group and the Jabatan Warisan Negara (National Heritage Department). We were also joined by a Soko Jampasri,  a Japanese researcher who is based in Bangkok. Soko brought with her a Japanese military account of the war, contained in a book published by the now defunct Imperial Japanese Army Academy.

Kapten Zuraiman of Muzium Tentera Darat.

Kapten Zuraiman of Muzium Tentera Darat.

Information provided by Kapten Muhd Zuraiman Abd Ghani of the Muzium Tentera Darat as well as members of the Yayasan Warisan Johor (Johor Heritage Foundation) and the Malaya Heritage Group, point to Pengerang, a remote and isolated corner of the Malay Peninsula, being among the last positions in Malaya to have been surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army. The army’s arrival coming a week or so after Singapore’s 15 February 1942 fall and this allowed several members of the forces based there to attempt an escape to Batam, where they were to be rounded up by the Japanese. Those that remained at Pengerang were captured and sent over to Changi.

Soko Jampasri, the Japanese researcher and Zafrani Arifin from the Malay Heritage Group.

Soko Jampasri, the Japanese researcher and Zafrani Arifin from the Malay Heritage Group.

Zafraini showing a map of the Japanese invasion of Singapore from Sako's book.

Zafrani showing a map of the Japanese invasion of Singapore from Soko’s book.

There was a little uncertainty if the guns at the position were fired at all in anger. Information provided in the Karl Hack and Kevin Blackburn’s “Did Singapore have to fall? Churchill and the impregnable fortress” point to them being used to fire at a junk on 11 February 1942. The guns might not have been used again and were destroyed on 14 February 1942 along with those at Sajahat, Ladang, Calder, Sphinx and Tekong as the loss of Singapore seemed imminent. The gun positions on Bukit Pengerang are now within the confines of the TLDM KD Sultan Ismail, the Naval Base now at Tanjung Pengelih, and it is not known if any traces of their emplacements are still around.

Another observation position,

Another observation position,

An accommodation block.

An accommodation block.

One of the structures that remain is one that greets the eye just around the bend in the road from the jetty – a machine gun pillbox. The pillbox, which is now decorated will Johor state flags and a strange collection of old items, is quite readily accessible and is one that takes me back to the days of my childhood. There were many such pillboxes found across the southern shores of Singapore up to the early 1970s and several at the Changi area, including one at Mata Ikan where I would have the holidays of my early childhood at, served as places of play and adventure despite the strong smell of rotting matter that accompanied an entry into them. Most were removed as the coastline was being pushed out during the reclamation efforts of the 1970s. One that is left, at Labrador Park, now has its openings sealed and there no longer is a possibility of an adventure in them.

The machine gun pillbox by the coast and at the foot of the knoll on which the battery's searchlights were positioned.

The machine gun pillbox by the coast and at the foot of the knoll on which the battery’s searchlights were positioned.

Inside the pillbox.

Inside the pillbox.

Several other gun emplacements and positions remain intact, including the publicly accessible No. 1 gun emplacement at the Johore Battery in Changi, now topped by a replica 15″ gun as well some substantial remnants of the Faber Command positions in Blakang Mati. However, what is left now at Pengerang is especially of interest, as it is a reminder that the protection of the garrison island, even if it was to prove ineffective in the entire scheme of things, involved positions outside what we see today as the boundaries of Singapore.

The naval base at Tanjung Pengelih, with Bukit Pengerang in the background.

The naval base at Tanjung Pengelih, with Bukit Pengerang in the background.


More photographs of the structures associated with the DEL position:

A water tank.

A water tank.

Another view of the inside of the block.

Another view of the inside of the block.

Nature has taken over some of the spaces.

Nature has taken over some of the spaces.

The corridor of another block.

The corridor of another block.

Inside the block.

Inside the block.

A gun post near what appears to be a cookhouse.

A gun post near what appears to be a cookhouse.

A wash basin.

A wash basin.

Chimneys and what was a stove.

Chimneys and what was a stove.

The entrance to the Engine Room built into the knoll.

The entrance to the Engine Room built into the knoll.

An escape shaft from the Engine Room.

An escape shaft from the Engine Room.

A trunk in the Engine Room.

A trunk in the Engine Room.

A more recent addition, a Yeo's soft drink bottle next to the structure intended to support the generators.

A more recent addition, a Yeo’s soft drink bottle next to the structure intended to support the generators.

More trunks.

More trunks.

A tunnel.

A tunnel.


Further information on the Pengerang Battery and the Coastal Defences of Singapore:


 





A look at the One Historical Map app

6 12 2015

I had a little go at the One Historical Map app that was launched by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) on Friday. The app, while not by any means perfect, is a useful tool – especially for those like me who are in the habit of pouring over old maps in trying to connect old Singapore with the greatly altered Singapore of today.

The One Historical Map app is accessible via the Web Portal (www.oneHmap.sg) or via a Mobile App now available on Android.

The One Historical Map app at the media launch. It is accessible via the Web Portal (www.oneHmap.sg) or via a Mobile App now available on Android.

The currently focus of the app is with the developments since independence and it offers access to five old editions of street maps from 1966, 1975, 1984, 1995 and 2007, along with that of the current year, 2015. Not only is there an ability to refer to these maps – already available on the SLA’s very handy Singapore Historical Map and the OneMap portals, there is also the ability to lay them side-by-side for comparison. This certainly is a powerful tool – a natural progression perhaps from the two wonderful mapping initiatives SLA has undertaken, that will allow the user to view how an area has changed over the years and also provides a very quick tool to determine locations of former landmarks. One thing that would be nice as a future feature is the capability to overlay maps and also incorporate maps from from the National Archives of Singapore.

An added feature of the app is that it allows users to upload and geo-tag personal photographs to it. The app does already come with some 300 images pre-loaded, 200 of which were curated by the National Heritage Board (NHB) who SLA has partnered with in bringing the app to the public this SG50 year. The remaining 100 or so photographs were contributed by SLA’s supporters and geo-historical enthusiasts. One concern that the “crowd-sourcing” of photographs does raise is the difficulty in ensuring the complete accuracy of the information being uploaded to the app, although the SLA has stressed that the intention to do this is more to allow the app to serve as a repository of memories.

SLA is looking at improving the app and as such welcomes feedback on it. While it currently is available only for Android mobile platforms, users on other platforms have access to it via the app’s web portal at www.oneHmap.sg.


Some examples of what the app offers:

In search of old Somapah. The ability to compare maps side-by-side on the go is especially useful. Here we can see how the area around the once bustling Somapah Village has changed, how Somapah Road has since been re-aligned and pin-point the locations of landmarks in the area such as Red Swastika School.

The ability to compare maps side-by-side on the go is especially useful. Here we can see how the area around the once bustling Somapah Village has changed, how Somapah Road has since been re-aligned and pin-point the locations of landmarks in the area such as Red Swastika School.

Laying old and current maps side-by-side provides the ability to see changes to the coastline and in this case where the red cliffs at Tanah Merah Besar (where Tanah Merah Besar Road met Wing Loong Road) now are - buried under Changi Airport.

Laying old and current maps side-by-side provides the ability to see changes to the coastline and in this case where the red cliffs at Tanah Merah Besar (where Tanah Merah Besar Road met Wing Loong Road) now are – buried under Changi Airport.

The search for the lost Mata Ikan village leads to Changi South Avenue 2.

The search for the lost Mata Ikan village leads to Changi South Avenue 2.

Finding where old Tuas Village now is.

Finding where old Tuas Village now is.

The app allows users to upload and geo-tage photographs and provide short descriptions.

The app allows users to upload and geo-tage photographs and provide short descriptions.

Example of an uploaded geo-tagged photograph.

Example of an uploaded geo-tagged photograph.


 





The long road to Somapah

26 06 2015

Excerpts of an interview with Mr Lim Jiak Kin:

From the late 1950s to the 1970s, I had a relative who lived in Mata Ikan. This was close to Somapah Village where my mother’s best friend lived. Her second son was my second brother’s god-brother.

The approach to Somapah and Mata Ikan was via Somapah Road, lined on the left and right with rows of shophouses. I remember a tailor, as well as a corner shop where my mother’s best friend ran a permanent wave salon. The salon was air-conditioned – a big deal in those days and it was where we always stopped on the way to Mata Ikan.

The idyllic setting of Mata Ikan village as captured by Singapore artist Harold Ong.

The idyllic setting of Mata Ikan village as captured by Singapore artist Harold Ong.

I also remember that there were shophouses opposite the permanent wave shop, in front of which were some very good food stalls. One hawker sold fish porridge and another sold fried oysters. The stalls were relocated to Changi Village when Somapah was resettled. Right next to the permanent wave salon was an open-air cinema.

Somapah Road, at its junction with Jalan Somapah Timor (National Archives online catalogue).

By the side of the cinema there was a little slope where a number of stalls had been set up. This was where the morning market was held and where freshly cooked food and fish were sold. The fish would probably have been brought in from the sea at Mata Ikan, one or two kilometres away. Driving past the market, you would come to a child and maternal clinic. Farther in there were holiday bungalows, corporate as well as private ones.

Mata Ikan 1973

A playground at the Government holiday bungalows at Mata Ikan.

After stopping by the salon, we would head to the end of Somapah Road. That was where we would find the last house by the sea, a house of wood and attap typical of a Malaysian beach hut, standing under a coconut tree.

That was our main destination, a provision shop run by a good friend of my father’s. He was a relative of sorts, having originated from the same ancestral village in Hainan as my father. This man and his Teochew wife lived at the back of the house and kept chickens, reserving the best of them and also their eggs for my father for the Chinese New Year.

Across the path from the provision shop was a small shed. That was where my father’s friend turned crushed cockle shells into a ‘dough-like’ kapor to be sold as whitewash. Packed into wooden crates measuring one foot by one foot and two to three feet high, the kapor would be put on sale in paint shops. Competition from low-end, but superior-quality paints introduced by established paint-makers, had seen the trade gradually dying out.

I remember that the population of the Somapah area was mainly Chinese. Among the various dialect groups was a large Hainanese community and I can recall the Hainanese-run Kwang Boo Kok Suat Thuan. The head of the association was one of the founders of the Long Beach Seafood Restaurant that used to operate in the now long-gone Bedok Rest House.

Kwang Boo Kok Suat Tuan on the Changi 10 Mile Facebook Page.

I have many fond memories of my trips to Somapah and Mata Ikan. It was an outing that to a young boy, seemed almost like an overseas trip. Not many people had the opportunity to travel to the beach by car in those days. We would head there in an Austin A40 with the registration plate SC 644 that my mother would drive. There would be five of us; my parents, my two brothers and me, and we would take the drive on Sundays when my father was free.

Somapah Village was one of the main settlements in the area and served as the gateway to some of the villages that lay along the old coastline.

Somapah Village, in the National Archives online catalogue.

The drive was a long but scenic one. It seemed a long journey even in later years when made on board a lorry that left from the Capitol Cinema, near where the Bata shop was. Sitting on a plank in the back of the lorry about an hour into the journey, I would always look out for the “阿弥陀佛” (a mi tuo fo) temple opposite the Bedok Army Camp, as a sign that we were nearing our destination, the site of the picnic we were attending.

As a city dweller living in a two-storey shophouse with only the very dangerous Odeon car park to run about in, I felt like a caged dog being let loose when we went to the beach. It always meant getting my feet wet, picking up shells and sitting under coconut trees – a real treat that to this day I can still picture in my dreams.


More memories of Somapah Village and Mata Ikan

The site of Somapah Village is now occupied by the campus of the recently erected Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). The heart of the village stood at the meeting of Somapah Road, which has since been realigned, and Upper Changi Road.  Mata Ikan, was a holiday destination for many in days when it was the fashion to take vacations by the sea. Its site would be close to where Changi South Ave 3 is today.

What has happened to the magical Tanah Merah Coastline ...

Approximate locations of some of the missing villages of the Changi / Somapah area.






The swastika at the tenth mile

9 07 2013

One very distinct memory from a childhood of many wonderful moments to remember is of the red swastika at Somapah Village. The village was one I had many encounters with in the late 1960s and very early 1970s, stopping by or passing through it on the many journeys we made to Mata Ikan at the other end of Somapah Road where a favourite holdiay destination for my family – the Mata Ikan Government Holiday Bungalows was located.

A photograph of the old Red Swastika School along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School's website).

The red swastika along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School’s website).

The swastika belonged to the Red Swastika School, just down the road from the main part of the village. It adorned the simple single storey zinc-roofed  school building, rising above it over the entrance and never failed to catch my attention from my vantage in the back seat of the car – a symbol I would always associate with the now lost village. The memories I do have of the village and the school are largely contained in a post I had put up at the end of 2010 on the village:  Memories of the lost world that was Somapah Village. What motivated me to touch on this again is a few old photographs of the school, apparently taken during a school sports day in the 1970s, sent by a reader Mr. Alvin Lee, which follows.

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The school traces its history back to the founding of the Wan Tzu School by the World Red Swastika Society at the village in 1951, built to serve residents of the rural community in the Changi 10th Mile area where Somapah Village was located and provided free education to them. Sometime in the 1950s, the name of the school was changed to the Red Swastika School – a name now well respected for its academic achievements.  Its enrollment was to grow quickly, from 300 at its starting, it had by the end of its first decade a population of some 1000 students who were accommodated in its 12 classrooms over two sessions. With the days of the village coming to an end in the 1980s the school moved to new premises in Bedok North Avenue 3 in 1981 where it still operates today.

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Adventures in a pill box

3 08 2011

Sifting through some old photographs, I found one of a machine gun pill box that I had as a young boy had many adventures in. The pill box, was one of many that were scattered along the southern coastline of Singapore and one that has all but disappeared (save for the one at Labrador Park) from the southern shores – most having been demolished in the early part of the 1970s. The particular pillbox that is the subject of the photograph, was one that was located close to the fishing village of Mata Ikan, in the days before land reclamation work commenced which added the extension to our southern shores which provided part of the land on which Changi Airport is built on.

The Pill Box at Mata Ikan in 1970.

Mata Ikan, of which I have mentioned in previous posts on the holiday bungalows my family used to frequent, and also in a post on Somapah Village which I always saw as a gateway to Mata Ikan, was for a while a playground for me, having spent many holidays by the sea in and around the area. It was where I first used a fishing rod – a simple bamboo one with a fixed length of line and a hook at its end, fishing for catfish by tghe stream which ran to the west of the holiday bungalows. What the photograph of the pill box evokes is a few memories I have of playing in the pill box with friends, pretending to be soldiers with a piece of drift wood picked up from the beach serving as a rifle, peeping out towards the sea through the openings at the front. There is also that memory of the stench one got from the pillboxes, the stench that probably came from the litter that lay rotting on the ground within the pill boxes. It is a stench I will never forget, but one that brings with it the memories of my adventures in another lost part of Singapore’s past.





The last memories of the rural Singapore of old

17 01 2011

I must admit that there was a time when I would have been reluctant to set foot in a kampung (village) in Singapore being very much the urban kid that I was growing up in the new highrise village of Toa Payoh. Back in the early days of Toa Payoh, much of Singapore still lived in the attap and zinc roofed wooden houses set in the densely packed villages all over the rural parts of the island. I had myself, had several experiences of a kampung in my early days, having been made to visit a so-called “sworn-sister” of my maternal grandmother at least once every Chinese New Year when we would spend most of the second day at the chicken farm in Punggol which she and her husband had in their care.

Despite my reluctance to visit kampungs in my early childhood, kampung days were never far away with regular visits to one in Punggol.

The visits to Punggol would inevitably mean that I would have to bear a few hours of boredom, stuck in the confines of what served as the living and dining room of the house with the simple furnishings of a formica topped folding table, a few stools, a food cabinet, two armchairs, and a small coffee table to keep me company. All there was to break the monotony of the room would be the sound of the Rediffusion speaker breaking the relative silence of the room, as I impatiently waited for one of my parents to make an appearance. The great outdoors where my parents would invariably spend the first part of the visits at wasn’t something that I was exactly enamoured with, particularly the fresh country air that would be laced with the smells that came from the rows of chicken coops nearby, a mixture of the smell of chicken feed and chicken droppings, with that of the generous amounts of natural fertiliser that would be used on the numerous plots of vegetables growing around. The fascination that I had with some of the livestock certainly wouldn’t have been enough to presuade me to move from my perch on one of the stools, let alone step across the threshold to join my parents in admiring the ripening array of tropical fruits that awaited their harvest outside.

It certainly has been a long time since I last took in the sights of zinc roofed wooden house in Singapore.

Not all kampungs are made the same of course, and I certainly, as a casual visitor, appreciated some of the coastal villages a lot more than I did the one I regularly visited at Punggol. My earliest encounters with the villages by the seaside would have been at Mata Ikan and Ayer Gemuruh in my very early years, passing through on my hoildays around the Tanah Merah and Mata Ikan area. It only much later in life that I got to wander around some of them in earnest, with one on our northern shoreline just east of the Mata Jetty at the end of Sembawang Road, being one that I would visit often, Kampung Tanjong Irau. The coastal villages were usually more pleasing to the eyes, and it was always nice to encounter the often colourful sight of fishing boats ashore and fishing nets strung up to be mended. This sight would often be accompanied by the whiff of the sea that would be mixed with the smells left on the nets that the catch the nets had held, carried by the gentle breeze from the sea.

The smell of fishing nets was something to look forward to during visits in my childhood to the coastal villages which I seemed to enjoy more.

It was in the latter part of the 1980s that I started to lose touch with the kampungs that I knew, as the busy schedule of my tertiary education and National Service, as well as time spent away from Singapore, took me away from the routines that occupied my childhood. Distracted by what was going on in my life then and the years of my career, the opportunity to say goodbye to the villages of my youth had soon passed me by, as it was during that time that, one by one, the villages that had been very much a part of Singapore’s rural landscape started to disappear as modernisation in Singapore caught up with them. My grandmother’s “sworn-sister” had during that time, been forced to abandon the lifestyle she had known all her life and resettled in Ang Mo Kio, just a stone’s throw from where I lived.

Zinc roofs were once common all over rural Singapore and started to disappear with the wave of urbanisation that swept through rural Singapore in the 1980s.

It was only well into the arrival of the new century that I realised that there had been one village, Kampung Lorong Buangkok, that had somehow resisted the tide of development that had swept through the island and it was in reading a New York Times article “Singapore Prepares to Gobble Up Its Last Village” in early 2009 that I had thought of having a look at what has been touted as the last remaining village on mainland Singapore. Having on many occasions cycled through the area during my teenage years, the village was actually tucked away in an area that was familiar to me, although it was the grounds of the road that led up to the mental hospital, Woodbridge Hospital, named after the main access road to the area, Jalan Woodbridge, that I took more notice of (Jalan Woodbridge has in the intervening years been renamed Gerald Drive in an effort by property developers to avoid any association housing developments in the area could have with the mental hospital (which has since moved to nearby Hougang and renamed as the Institute of Mental Health), but it wasn’t until the National Library Board organised a visit to the kampung recently that I got to have my look around.

The area around Gerald Drive bear very little resemblance to the road that I had once cycled around when it was called Jalan Woodbridge.

An old road sign with the old four digit postal code.

The visit was certainly one that was well worth the while, rather than having to explore the are on my own as besides navigating through the labyrinth that is the village, the guide, Mr Bill Gee, was able to also provide some information on the village as well. The village as it currently stands, sits on a one and a third hectare plot of land (equivalent to the size of three football fields) which is owned by a Ms Sng Mui Hong, a 57 year old resident of the village. Ms Sng had inherited the land from her father who had bought the land when she was three (in 1956), constructing a village which at its height occupied an area roughly twice its current size with 40 households living on it. Today, Ms Sng rents the zinc roofed housing units out to the 28 households that remain, keeping rents at levels that make the rents (by a long way) the cheapest on the island at between S$6.50 to S$30 (excluding electricity and water).

An address plate at a house along Lorong Buangkok where the last village on mainland Singapore stands.

A Chinese home at the entrance to the last village.

Lorong Buangkok as it looks today.

A well photograph sign points the way to the Surau (Muslim Prayer Room).

It certainly felt surreal walking through the kampung, especially in the context of what Singapore has become. The village did appear very much as if time has left it behind, as I weaved my way through the maze of wooden houses, each with a distinct character and colour. The houses were certainly typical of the kampung houses of old, with cemented floors and a grilled gap left between the zinc roofs and the exterior walls of wood to provide ventilation. Wood is used as a structural building material not just because that it is a traditional material, but also as the use of brick and mortar would render the houses too heavy to be supported by the soft muddy ground that lies below due to the area having once been a swamp which was fed by a creek upstream of Sungei Punggol, which my mother had been familiar with in her own childhood, as having lived at the sixth mile area of Upper Serangoon Road not far away, it was where as she would recall, “my father would jump into, not having a care in the world for the possible dangers that the waters held”, stopping the practice only after a mangrove snake had been spotted on one of their forays into the creek. There certainly still is some evidence of what was a brackish water swamp: mud lobster mounds and the red-brown petals of the flowers of the Sea Hibiscus tree are clearly visible on the ground in the area of the village just by what is now a canalised Sungei Punggol. Being built in a low-lying area where a swamp had formed, the village is also one that is prone to flooding, as the evidence – a flood level marker and a signboard providing information on days when there is a risk of flooding at road in from the main road, across from the well photographed sign giving directions to the village’s Surau (a Muslim prayer room), does suggest.

Mud Lobster mounds are clearly visible in the area near the canalised Sungei Punggol, bearing testament to the swamp that existed in the area.

The area is prone to flooding. A PUB signboard is used to inform villagers of days on which flooding is likely to occur.

A flood level marker is seen in the drain close to the PUB signboard.

In the vicinity of the village near where the flood level marker is, is the site of the former SILRA Home (a home for ex-Leprosy patients run by the SIngapore Leprosy Relief Association – hence SILRA) along Lorong Buangkok, of which the entrance remains with a wall on which the faint words “SILRA HOME” can be made out. The home moved to Buangkok View in 2004.

A wall is all that remains of the entrance to the former SILRA Home along Lorong Buangkok.

Many of the Malay and Chinese residents have lived in the village for well over forty years, with many not wanting to move out having been used to the laid back lifestyle and access to open spaces which moving into the modern suburbia would rob them of. It was certainly nice to encounter some of the villagers, who readily smiled at the curious group of visitors that had descended on the village breaking the calm and peace of the village, of whom I am sure they get too many of as interest in the last kampung has increased with all the publicity it has received in recent years. Peaceful the kampung certainly was compared to my first memories of the kampung in Punggol, where the were the sounds of the clucking of hens, the crowing of roosters, the quacking of ducks, the snorting and grunting of pigs and the barking of dogs never seemed to cease. It was in this sea of sounds that one which I would never forget would pierce through each evening – the unmistakable and shirll crescendo that was the chorus of pigs squealing as if they might have been singing for their supper.

The kampung's Surau.

The wooden houses each have a character of their own, painted in the different colours that add a certain charm to the village.

Other sights around Kampung Lorong Buangkok …

Modern times I guess have caught up with the last kampung - I mentioned my parents experience being the first in Kampong Chia Heng to own a TV in a previous post - back then, doors were unlocked and everyone in the village could walk into the living room to have a curious glance at the TV set.

A hinge for a gate ...

Clothes pegs on a laundry line.

A view through a set of bamboo blinds ...

A hibiscus in full bloom.

Ornamental flags flapping in the wind.

A resident on a bicycle.

Malay residents of the kampung.

The star of the kampung - a star made by Jamil Kamsah, a resident of the kampung.

A hurricane lamp ...

and another ...

One of the last places in Singapore to have cables overhead ...

A fallen fruit from a Starfruit tree ...

A Buddha statue.





Memories of the lost world that was Somapah Village

16 12 2010

I have but vague memories of a world that once lay at the gateway to my playground by the sea. It was a world that now seems so distant in time and in space, and one that for me comes back in bits and pieces. That was the world that was once the bustling Somapah Village, located close to the 10th milestone of Changi Road, a place that was a major settlement in the area, deserving a mention in the RAF Information Booklet for New Arrivals for its Veterinary Clinic from which dog licenses could be obtained: “Travelling from Changi, Somapah Road is the first turning left after the overhead pedestrian crossing in Suicide Village – an off-white bungalow almost at the end of the road”.

Somapah Village was one of the main settlements in the area and served as the gateway to some of the villages that lay along the old coastline (source: National Archives).

My acquaintance with the village goes back to the early days of Singapore’s independence, when my parents who were in the civil service, made regular use of the Government holiday bungalows near Mata Ikan Village. Somapah Village was where Somapah Road met Upper Changi Road and served as a gateway to the coastal villages that lay to the south-east of it, including Mata Ikan, which was located a mile or so down the road at the coastal end of Somapah Road. Passing through the part of the village which had always seemed a hive of activity in the mornings was also the trigger for me to look out for the red swastika that would be perched on the top of a building, having developed a fascination for the symbol from the many encounters I had with the Nazis that had to do less with my overactive imagination than with the nightly dose of the exploits of Vic Morrow’s character Sgt. Saunders on Combat! The red swastika belonged to the Red Swastika School that was in a quiet part of the village along Somapah Road on the right as we made our way towards Mata Ikan, and was the left facing symbol used by the Taoist Red Swastika Society as opposed to the right facing swastika used by the Nazis, not that I noticed it then.

A photograph of the old Red Swastika School along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School's website).

Besides the memories of the red swastika, I do have some further memories of Somapah, two of which relate to visit to the GP’s clinic which was on the right side of the village along Somapah Road (facing south). What I can recollect was that it was perched on a raised area from the road, a unit in a row of shophouses. Both visits made to the GP were certainly painful ones, the first involved my mother who needed the GP’s attention to remove a fish hook which had lodged into the flesh around her knee as she climbed over a sea wall at Mata Ikan. The second was made for my benefit, one in which I sought relief from a painful encounter with the zipper of my shorts.

A scene from Somapah Village in 1986 - I believe the GP's clinic was in the row of shops in the background (source: National Archives).

It wasn’t so much the GP’s clinic that my earliest memories of the village were connected with. Those were of the market, which I believe was on the side opposite the shops where the GP’s clinic was located. It was where (the bungalows we holidayed at were self-catering and featured a well equipped kitchen), my mother would on every other day during our stays, shop for supplies of fresh produce and fish. We could of course rely on the mobile vendors: vegetables, fish, meat and eggs were sold from the back of a pick-up or a van that went from house to house, but the market always offered a much larger assortment. The market was where I had my earliest memories of seeing Sting Rays up close, displayed on the table of a fishmonger close to the entrance of the market. Being the inquisitive child that I was, the market was always a great source of fascination for me.

A barber's shop at Somapah Village (source: National Archives).

On the subject of mobile vendors, one that I was particularly fond of seeing was the bread vendor, who made an appearance every morning with his colourful display of bread dangling from a rack of sorts that was mounted on the back of a motorcycle. His arrival meant I could get my day’s supplies of the sweet grated coconut buns that I never could wait to sink my teeth into. Another one on two wheels that I would look out for would have been the milkman, with a milk can mounted at the back of his bicycle from which he would dispense milk in glass bottles. It is only very recently that I realised that the milk actually came from a dairy farm that was in Somapah Village itself – learning of the farm’s existence from an article on the ThinkQuest website.

A Chinese Temple (source: National Archives).

There are a few who remember the area having lived in the village, including a few readers who were kind enough to share their memories of Somapah on my post on Mata Ikan. One was a Mr Koh who described where the GP’s clinic I mentioned was: “The GP’s clinic was indeed situated close to a row of shophouses. It was located up a small slope called Jalan Somapah Timor. It was opened in 1962. Opposite the clinic and across the road was an open field with some cattle for diary purpose. Beside the clinic was a PAP kindergaten, my first school. Opposite it was a small police post. The market was an open-air market. Some of the vendors had shops with wooden top for their goods; the rest would place their items on ground sheets”. Another who goes by the moniker “sotong” added “my first sch was the PAP kindergarten too. i used to stayed in a house at jalan somapah timor, where the airport was separated from my place by a major road..still rem often seeing and hearing plane flying over my house. Also rem the days accompanying my mum to the market near my kumpung, eating chicken rice in this shop for i think 50cents per pack. but unfortunately i can’t rem exactly where my old house use to be located”.

Chinese Medicine Shop at Somapah Village (source: National Archives).

These days, there isn’t really much to remind us of that Somapah. The village and all around it has all but disappeared and only a few remnants of the area are left. Most of Somapah Road has gone, just a little maybe 50 metre stretch left of it located somewhere close to where Singapore Expo is off Changi South Avenue 1, relegated to a road that serves as a driveway to a car park. Across the road there are a few reminders of the time from which my experiences of Somapah Village were connected with including some of the roads such as Jalan Tiga Ratus and the buildings that were the former Changkat Changi Primary School that rose on a small hill along the Changi Road (now Upper Changi Road) next to Jalan Tiga Ratus which was built in the later half of the 1960s.

Across the road at Jalan Tiga Ratus, the buildings that were the Changkat Changi Secondary School (1st Photo) and Changkat Changi Primary School (2nd and 3rd Photo) built in the latter part of the 1960s still stand.

Across the road a big void greets the observer where once a bustling Somapah Road and Village had stood.

A gate stands across where Somapah Road had once run towards the coastal village of Mata Ikan.

What used to be Somapah Road near the junction with Upper Changi Road.

Where a village once stood ... now an empty field.


The little bit of Somapah Road that's left ... relegated to an access road for a car park.

A dead end for Somapah Road.

The view of the empty grassland from the south.





No longer the land that Fairy Tales are made of …

9 11 2010

Wandering around parts of the area to the west of Changi Village today, what greets you is the host of holiday facilities, housed in terraced, semi-detached and detached units that had once be given to use as the living quarters of senior servicemen with the British forces stationed in the area. It was back in the days when my very first impressions of Changi Village were formed, that I had first become acquainted with the area, which had lay well protected behind a fence and guarded by alert policemen who played sentry at the main entry point which was a gate just up Netheravon Road from where the village was. Those were the days when what marked Changi Village were the two rows of zinc roofed shop houses which had provided the area with not just a distinct flavour but a feel that made the village a place to escape to. The area up Netheravon Road had a somewhat different feel to the village, being laid out in the fashion of the other British bases found on the island, with much less clutter and wide expansive spaces. Set on the rolling landscape that extended westwards towards the coastline and Fairy Point were the houses that had been the quarters of servicemen, left vacant by that time, as well as several large holiday villas placed at prime locations overlooking the sea. There were also the military facilities for which the area had been guarded including the now infamous former Changi Hospital which had for a time been used as a military hospital as well as several military facilities.

A gate had stood on Netheravon Road at the entrance to what had been a protected area where the likes of the then Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, took his holidays.

By that time, many of the villas by the sea had been turned over for use by the most senior officers of the civil service for holidays, at a time when taking local holidays by the sea was seen as as a fashionable as a holiday in New York, Paris or Tokyo would be seen today. Some of the regular users of the bungalows in the area included members of the Cabinet, including the then Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his family, who often took their holidays in a section that was further protected by another fence not far from where the Changi Sailing Club is today.

The fenced area seen was a protected area within the entire protected Changi Point area where members of the Cabinet would take their holidays.

Another view of the same fenced area along Netheravon Road.

Access to the area at that time would only have been possible by surrendering one’s identity card at the old style Police Post which was at the junction of Jalan Bekukong and Upper Changi Road … my parents would do that on each of the few occasions that we ventured into the area – as guests of one of their friends who were putting up at one of the bungalows there. My earliest impression of this was going to one which was at Fairy Point, at a large two storey bungalow, for a birthday party for one of the children of my parents’ friends, of which I have only vague memories of. What I do remember very well was the name of the area “Fairy Point” and with that, I had somehow associated the area with its large villas by the sea, one where I could imagine fairy tales being made of.

The area where the Police Post had been stood to the right of this ....

It was in the later part of the 1970s, at a time when Changi Village had already been cleared of the wooden shop houses and had been given the facelift that has made it what it is today, that I would frequent the land of fairy tales regularly. With the massive land reclamation project along much of the southern shores that started in the early 1970s, my parents and many other civil servants were deprived of the use of the wonderful holiday bungalows along the idyllic Tanah Merah and Mata Ikan coast that lay to the south east of Changi Beach, and many of the former quarters within what had been the protected Changi Point area were opened up for use by junior civil servants as holiday chalets, and my parents became regular users of the holiday units there. By that time, access to the area was also then opened to everyone, and we were free to come and go as we pleased, making it much easier to move around. The units that I first took a holiday in in the area is in a row of terraced houses fronting Netheravon Road, at its junction with Sealand Road, which still stands today. I remember that very well for the large airy rooms and the narrow staircase which led up from the entrance area that the door opened to. The units were furnished modestly – the living spaces had the old style rattan furniture with heavy foam cushions, and bed rooms had simple bed frames with mattresses lined with white bed linen. What was always nice to have was the well equipped kitchen which allowed us to self-cater, and my mother would often make her way to the new market at Changi Village to purchase what had seemed to be the freshest fruits of the sea one could then find in Singapore.

The terraced row of holiday units that I first stayed in at the junction of Netheravon Road and Sealand Road.

There were several other units that I had also holidayed at that are still there … one that I regularly found myself at were the semi-detached units which now appear to have been rented out off Sealand Road, which had a nice airy living room and rooms upstairs. Another was the single storey detached unit, Chalet L, off Sealand Road, which I would well remember for being the last unit in the area that I had taken a holiday with my parents at, as well as for being where I, with a few of my platoon mates, had our Run-Out-Date (ROD) party at the end of our fulltime National Service in 1987. It was around 1988 that I last took a holiday there … and following that, I guess life caught up with me and I haven’t really had the chance to walk around to the area since then until very recently … Taking a walk around, I found that much of it does still look the same, with the holiday units looking a lot more well maintained than they did before, being now run by a private entity on behalf of the Govenrment, and most of what had been there is still there. There are also some newer buildings and facilities around as well as additional fences which has somehow made the area seem more cluttered and seem less like that wonderful place I had many memories of … no longer the land perhaps that fairy tales are made of.

I was a regular visitor to the semi-detached units off Sealand Road - which now seems to have been leased out.

Another view of the semi-detached unit.

How the semi-detached unit had looked like in 1987 ... I have some more older photographs of the unit which I have not had the opportunity to scan ....

The inside of Chalet L in 1987.

Chalet L today.

The barbecue pit at Chalet L in 1986.

The barbecue pit today.





The Changi Village that I loved

29 10 2010

One of the places that I would always have a place in my heart for, is the Changi Village that had occupied the many weekends of my early childhood. It was a place that, like much of the Singapore that I had developed a fondness for in my childhood, exists only in the memories of those who had known it as had once been. It was a place which offered many an escape from the hustle and bustle of the expanding city, a world set far apart somehow from the rest of Singapore with a laid back attitude and a sense of calm that was starting to disappear from much of the rest of Singapore. The main street of the village was lined with the two distinctive rows of mainly zinc topped wooden shops, almost like a scene perhaps from the Wild West, offering more than an escape to some such as my mother, who often enjoyed a lazy Sunday afternoon stroll trawling through the often colourful displays of goods at the front of the shops before heading to the beach to bathe in the cool evening breeze. For many, there was the draw of chilling-out after the exertions of trawling the five-foot ways, not so much in Wild West styled saloons we might had imagined were there, but in the many chilling-out spots such as the Millie’s Coffee House, a household name in Changi Village in those days.

The five-foot way of a row of shops which one could take a lazy Sunday afternoon stroll along, c.1972 (photo courtesy of Derek Tait).

It would probably be hard to visualise how Changi Village might once have been without the photographs that exist, and what we do see of the remake of the village that (if we ignore the weekend crowds), still offers an escape from the concrete jungle that Singapore has become, bears little resemblance to that old laid back village. Now, four low-rise blocks of HDB flats that replaced the wooden shacks in the mid 1970s dominate the village. Despite the more urban feel that Changi Village now exudes, it is still for many, a place to chill-out, with the many food and beverage outlets and the ever popular hawker centre a big draw. There are also those little reminders of the good old days when the village was a hub of activity being a destination for the many RAF servicemen and their families stationed at the airbase in Changi. Some of the shops that had existed then are still present in one form or another. There are also similar shops that existed as before, offering supplies for the beach or for a spot of fishing, set amongst the new world shops such as the convenience stores that are more commonly seen these days, and the sight of inflatable floats and toys colouring the shop fronts, much as they did in the days gone by still greet the visitor today.

How Changi Village had looked like before the four low-rise HDB blocks of flats replaced the two rows of mainly zinc roofed wooden shop houses (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

The village is today dominated by the four low-rise HDB blocks that came up in the later part of the 1970s, replacing the wooden shacks that were demolished in 1973.

The present hawker centre is popular with many visitors to Changi Village.

The colourful sight of displays of inflatable floats and toys still greet the visitor to the remake of Changi Village, much as they might have done in the good old days.

The memories that I have of the village come from my frequent trips there with my parents, and besides the lazy Sunday afternoon strolls, there were also many stopovers to pick up supplies for a beach picnic or the odd butterfly net with which we could harvest the fruits of the sea that the seaweed, sea cucumber and starfish decorated sandy seabed offered those who did not mind walking with a soggy pair of sneakers. On several occasions, trips there would have been on the excursions from the holiday bungalows that my parents often stayed at during the school holidays at Mata Ikan and Tanah Merah before the idyllic coastline they were set in was lost to land reclamation that allowed Changi Airport to be built. There are still some of the souvenirs of the strolls, which, in the form of the photo albums that hold some memories of not just my days in the idyllic coastline, but also of much of my childhood, are some of my most treasured possessions.

A shop in Changi Village shop c.1972 (photo courtesy of Derek Tait).

The cover of one of the photo albums that are souvenirs of the lzay Sunday afternoon strolls along the five foot ways of the wooden shacks that lined the main street of Changi Village.

One of the shops that I remember – possibly for the unusual name it had, was a shop named “L Gee Lak” – as kids, some of the children of my parents friends with whom we sometimes went on picnics with and I would often poke fun at the name, referring to the shop as “Lembu Gila“, Malay for “Mad Cow” – having one particular memory of sitting in the back seat of a yellow Saab 96 that one of the parents owned that was parked right in front of the shop and laughing along to the chorus of “Lembu Gila” that rang out from my companions seated beside me. There were also quite a number of shops that offered tailoring services as well – there would have been a big demand for such from the members of the British Forces that frequented the village … there was one that I remember – with a signboard that read “Singh Tailor” and at the bottom of the signboard, there were the words “Proprietor: Baboo Singh”. The tailor shop later moved into one of the shop units at the foot of the HDB flats just opposite the popular Changi Village hawker, with a signboard that till today still reads “Singh Tailor” – which of late has the word “Proprietor: Baboo Singh” removed.

L Gee Lak – not so much as how I remember it – I seem to remember a painted signboard with a white background with the words “L GEELAK” painted in red (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

A survivor from the Changi Village of old.

Another thing that gave the village of old its distinct character were some of the older buildings around – the Changi Cinema, a 500 seat old style village cinema which stood at the site of the present bus terminus. Another was the old police station, at the junction of Lorong Bekukong and what was Upper Changi Road, one that had a distinct country flavour which served as a gateway to another world that lay to the north of the village – an exclusive area where senior civil servants holidayed at which would have only been accessible with a visit to the station, where one could get a pass to enter the restricted area by sitting across a wooden counter or desk from a police officer to whom the identity card of the person intending to make that visit would have to be surrendered. What lay beyond a fence that restricted access across Netheravon Road was certainly another world, maybe not quite the fairy land that the names of one of the places within the area, Fairy Point, would suggest, but one that was a wonderful world nonetheless  and one that I will certainly touch on in a future post.

Changi Cinema, which stood at the site of the current bus terminus, c.1972 (photo courtesy of Derek Tait).

The site of the present bus terminus is where the Changi Cinema once stood.


A photograph of Mr. Baboo Singh taken in 1995 by Mr. Peter Stubbs.





Go fly kite and jump into the harbour!

6 10 2010

The NTUC Income Kite Festival Singapore 2010 over the 18/19 September weekend saw many descend on what was once the sea … a reclaimed piece of land part of what was the Inner Roads of the Singapore Harbour, on what is now the Promontory @ Marina Bay. The Inner Roads had then extended to the Detached Mole – a breakwater where the piece of land on which Marina Bay Sands has been constructed on. The festival was organised with “the aim to rekindle the old kampong spirit and celebrate the kite as a symbol of grace, cultural diversity and scientific achievements”, certainly attracted a large crowd, and was perhaps a little too crowded for any serious kite flying. What was nice to see certainly, was the level of interest that Singapore has in what was once considered a schoolboy’s past time.

The Inner Roads with Clifford Pier in the foreground and the Detach Mole at the top in the 1960s - the area beyond where the cluster of ships on the top right of the photograph is the general area where the Promontory @ Marina Bay is today (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

A night time view of what used to be the Inner Roads from the Promontory @ Marina Bay.

Kite flying as an activity has certainly evolved over the years. My first brush with kite flying was seeing boys preparing kite strings that had been coated with a mix of starch and crushed glass, stringing the strings around the trunks of trees to allow the starch to dry in the Mata Ikan area of Singapore. I would watch them later loft their simple kites made of paper and bamboo high into the skies – with the aim to “fight” with their kites – this would be achieved by trying to entangle one’s glass lined sting against the opponent’s and cutting the opponent’s string. The kites were similar to those I would have seen hanging outside the provision and mama shops, two of which would have gone for an affordable five cents. Many of the boys would have made their own kites however, something which wasn’t really difficult to do – and something that I myself did on occasion, initially with the help of my father who often spoke of his exploits fighting kites in the Farrer Park area in his childhood. I did also try my hand at kite-fighting, something that I never really mastered, using strings that a neighbour in Toa Payoh helped me with. Somehow for me, my kites seemed to behave in the same way that Charlie Brown’s kites often did … and it wasn’t long before I turned to playing football with the neighbourhood kids.

Crowds descended on the Promontory @ Marina Bay for the Kite Festival.

I did get to fly kites again … and by the time I got to do that, kite flying had evolved into larger kites made of fabric or plastic mounted on wooden frames that could collapse for portability. This was an activity that I enjoyed with my parents over at an open strip of land just east of the swimming lagoon at East Coast Park, which was a very popular spot for kite flying back in the late 1970s. The kites were of course heavier and more costly, and fighting wasn’t the objective anymore. The kite strings we used were also thicker and this we either wind around a can or a fishing reel. By that time I had also somehow managed to learn to keep the kite up in the air and we spent a few hours every Sunday evening for maybe a period of two years doing that. There was an occasion that I became so engrossed in the activity that I left a bag that was in my care behind – one that contained my parents camera …

Kites soaring above the Promontory @ Marina Bay.

Kite flying in SIngapore has evolved from a schoolboy activity into a weekend pursuit involving kites that cost a lot more that the simple kites in the old days.

That was more that thirty years ago … and I have not flown a kite since, despite on being told to “Go Fly Kite” on many occasions. I had noticed of late that there is still quite a lot of interest in kite flying still – seeing kites soaring high over the open field along Woodlands Avenue 12 just by the Seletar Expressway, but never realised the extent of this level of interest until my recent encounter with the NTUC Income Kite Festival Singapore 2010. Perhaps the next time I am told “Go Fly Kite”, I might just think about doing it!

Kite soaring where tall buildings now soar above what were the Inner Roads.

More views around the Promontory @ Marina Bay … there were other activities as well …





Once Tanah Merah …

16 08 2010

There was at Tanah Merah, an idyllic world that in the Singapore of today, would be rather difficult to imagine. Set on a landscape on which the gentle undulations seemed to blend those of a forgotten sea, except for where a set of cliffs – the larger of two from which the area derives its name – stood, it was a most picturesque of spots and one in which many found an escape.

Caressed by the gentle breeze of the forgotten sea, Tanah Merah was where life was pretty; both for the occupants of the generously diemnsioned villas overlooking the sea, as it was for those whose humbler dwellings were marked by their thatched attap roofs.

Life was very much a beach for me, spending magical holidays by the sea in the Tanah Merah of old!

I first met the acquaintance of Tanah Merah as a child of three. A holiday taken at a huge government bungalow my parents were guests at, was to be the start of many early childhood encounters I was to have with the area.

Plymouth, the bungalow by the sea, near the village of Ayer Gemuroh, was one of two of a similar sort. The other was called Newquay. Perched on a small elevation that had overlooked the sea, it was typical of a colonial era house, its well selected position, a testament to the knack the British had for the best locations to house their colonial administrators.

The grounds of the bungalows at Tanah Merah, the Plymouth, at which I stayed at in Dec 1967 can be seen in the background.

As was typical of such houses, the bungalow was raised over the ground on stilt like columns. That I suppose, not only kept the vermin out, but also allowed ventilation through the slits in the wooden floorboards to keep the house cool in the oppressive tropical heat.

The bungalow would have been handed over to the Singapore government in the transition of the island from the colony to a state in the Federation and then independence. Several in the east, where the best beaches in Singapore were, were turned into holiday bungalows. This was to the benefit of the many civil service officers, in days when holidays at home by the sea were the fashion.

The entrance doorway of the Plymouth was accessible through a short flight of stairs.

The bungalow’s grassy and expansive grounds were shared with the neighbouring bungalow. A flight of stairs at its seaward end led to a terrace where benches allowed one to stare at the beach and sea beyond it.  Both the beach and the sea were accessible via another flight of stairs.

From the grounds, one climbed a short flight of stairs to the raised floor of the bungalow. This brought one up to a landing that led to a well ventilated lounge and dining area. Large airy bedrooms were also spread across the bungalow’s single level. The kitchen, and what would have been rooms that served as servants’ quarters, were found on behind the bungalows at ground level.

The expansive grounds where the bungalows were located was on a hillock close to Kampong Ayer Gemuruh that overlooked the sea.

The area around Ayer Gemuroh all was rather interesting. I would be given many views of the area from the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100 over the years that were to follow. The drives would take us from the holiday bungalows we would subsequently stay at in Mata Ikan, just southwest of Ayer Gemuroh, all the way to eastern ends of Changi Beach near Telok Paku where the waters were more pristine and also beyond which a favourite haunt of my parents, Changi Village, lay.

Map of the Kampong Ayer Gemuruh area showing the location of the Plymouth and Newquay (map source: Peter Chan).

The drives would take us through Wing Loong Road, down the area of the cliffs near where the road ended at Tanah Merah Besar Road. Moving beyond the T-junction, the road would become the marvellous Nicoll Drive, which ran along the casuarina lined beach and the sea, taking us past among other things, a children’s home.

Village scene, Kampong Ayer Gemuruh, 1963 (source: Peter Chan who obtained this photograph through a British guy whose father had worked in RAF Changi in the 1960s).

One of the sights to look out for during the drives would be David Marshall’s house by the sea. I was to learn much later that Marshall, who served as Singapore’s first Chief Minister upon the attainment of self-government, had the house named Tumasek and that it was where he entertained guests with his famous Sunday “curry lunches”. Marshall had set eyes on the house from a very young age and was able to purchase it only much later when its owner, a retiring accountant, wanted to sell it.

Aerial view of the coastline at the Tanah Merah area in 1964, close to the junction of Wing Loong Road with Tanah Merah Besar Road showing the “white cliffs” (source: Peter Chan).

The house then seemed a wonderful sight to behold. Set high over the sea, it greeted you especially on the approach from the northeast. It was from this point that the road  wound its way to Ayer Gemuroh and continued to the area where Mata Ikan was. The road moved inland from Mata Ikan towards Somapah Village. A path along the coastline would have taken one to Padang Terbakar and just beyond that to Bedok Corner

I had my first encounter with Kuda Kepang, a somewhat mystical dance of Javanese origins in which two-dimensional representations of horses are used, in passing Ayer Gemuroh on one of the drives. It was being performed in a clearing in the village for a wedding, as it would have been commonly seen in those days. Another sight from the village that would be etched in my memory is that of a group of boys walking around with their sarongs held away from their bodies by a frame. I would learn that the boys had just been circumcised and the frames, which presumably made of rattan, kept the sarongs from making painful contact with what must have been an especially tender spot.

Aerial view of the coastline at the Tanah Merah area in 1964, showing also Wing Loong Road (source: Peter Chan).

Another description of the area has also be provided by Peter Chan, who often guest blogs on Lam Chun See’s wonderful Good Morning Yesterday blog. I am also grateful to Peter for his aerial photographs, maps and some of the photographs in this post:

When you travel down Tanah Merah Besar Road, (after the junction with Tampines Road) you go down the “valley” and up the top then down the “valley” until you reach Nicoll drive junction. There was a sand pit on the left of Tanah Merah Besar Road (just before the junction) – you see like what you find in Malaya’s tin mining open cast mining this wooden “slide”.

Once you turn into Nicoll Drive on your right was Casuarina Motel (later called Aloha Rhu Village opened in 1971) with Hawaiian waitresses dressed in grass skirts. Then next was the Singapore Handicapped Home or Cheshire Chidlren’s home. In front of those homes was a WW2 pill-box.

You would then drive to 14 milestone Nicoll Drive. On your right you see one wooden community building – PA operated I think, called Tanah Merah Holiday Camp. There is a sharp bend to the right because there was the RAF Eastern Dispersal Area, and a road straight again to the Teluk Paku Road junction.

After this junction you find government division 1 holiday bungalows (black and white type, modern bungalows also – now where I think the SIA Engineering hangers are).

Teluk Mata Ikan was accessible from Wing Loong Road (metaled road), also from David Marshall house, from which one must pass 2SIB HQ called Tanah Merah Camp, which was built in 1966, There was also access from the north through Somapah Road.

There was a kampung and mosque at Ayer Gemuroh facing a cliff. Here are some photos you might need. I have written these up in my memories book. The PA venue could be called either Tanah Merah Holiday Camp or Changi Holiday Camp. The modern bungalows during RAF era were called B & H Bungalows (Brighton & Hoove still operate similar place in south England today)”.

The gateway to Tanah Merah. The junction of Tanah Marah Beasr Road, Changi Road and Tampines Road. The watch tower was a landmark in the area and was to watch over the perimeter fence around the piece of land in the background where prisoners from Changi Prison would be put to work (source: Peter Chan).

I suppose, beyond the descriptions provided, it would still be hard to fully appreciate what Tanah Merah was. Sadly for us and for the residents of the area, all the wonderment that a most beautiful of places provided, lives now only in our memories. That Tanah Merah, and its beautiful coast, lies in an area swallowed up by the massive land reclamation project of the early 1970s. Altering much of Singapore’s southern shores. In the case of Tanah Merah, it was to provide the land on which Changi Airport was to be built (a September 1970 news report in the Straits Times provides some information on the reclamation effort).

What has happened to the magical Tanah Merah Coastline …

The reclamation brought to not just a time of magical adventures for me. It altered the lives of many who had lived and had an attachment to an area of which little evidence other than a name, is left these days. Some of the area lies under Changi Airport with Ayer Gemuroh itself, buried under Taxiway WA (which runs along Runway 02L of Changi Airport). I have included a Google Earth map below, in an attempt to identify the approximate locations of the places I have mentioned.

The idyllic setting of Mata Ikan village as captured by Singapore artist Harold Ong.

All I have left of the most magical of places are some photographs, many fond memories, and a deep longing to return to an area that provided me with a joy that I have never again had the experience of.

tanah-merah

Tanah Merah Besar, 1958, posted by Graham Collins on Facebook.





Kalang kabut, cabut! Close encounters of a slithery kind …

2 08 2010

As a child, the sea provided me with an endless source of fun. By day, I could splash in its cool green waters or play by the water’s edge, allowing breaking waves to come crashing on me. I often longed for the feel of salt on my skin, dried by the soothing warmth of the sun. When the tide went out, the sea provided a different kind of fun … the shallow waters off Changi Beach particularly offering access to the wealth of fascinating creatures that lived amongst the sea grass: crabs, sea urchins, giant starfish, sea cucumber, hermit crabs, horseshoe crabs, fiddler crabs, sand dollars, sea snails and even shrimps which I could catch a glimpse of by looking for the two black eyes that stood out in contrast to the sandy bottom. Armed with a butterfly net, I could catch a harvest of edible flower crabs, sea snails (what we sometimes refer to as gong gong in Singapore), and shrimp, which could be cooked over an open fire once I got back to the beach. By night, the sea was another prospect altogether, and with the help of a companion shinning a light which attracted fish to it, there was a lot that I could catch from the sea with the same butterfly net. The sea off Sembawang near the Mata Jetty was particularly enjoyable, as we could catch a variety of small puffer fish which would inflate every time I managed to catch one.

The shallow waters during low tide off Changi Beach provided hours of endless fun with the creatures that lived amongst the sea grass. A fiddler crab is seen here.

The giant red Knobbly Sea Star was also a common sight.

With all that fun to be had by the sea, holidays taken by the sea became a natural choice I guess, my parents opting to take them at the holiday bungalows in Tanah Merah, Mata Ikan and Changi, or often on the drives to Malaysia: Prot Dickson on the West Coast and Kemaman on the East Coast was a popular choice for them. It was on one of these holidays in Malaysia, this time closer to home, at Masai close to the Pasir Gudang area on the Malaysian side of the Straits of Johor, that, where in previous instances we had been oblivious to some of the hazards that the sea posed to us, that we became more careful whenever we went into the sea. I was perhaps about eight then and we were in Masai with a group of my parents’ friends, mostly teachers, which included a few children around of my age group, staying at some rather run down chalets by the beach. We had our usual dose of fun splashing in the gentle waves, and playing on the beach. Evenings were spent around an open fire on the beach exchanging stories about pontianaks, hantu galas, hantu momoks and all kinds of hantus (hantu is Malay for ghost). On the beach, with a torch in hand, someone had noticed the abundance of anchovies that darted around the water, attracted by the light and it was then that the adults decided to wade into the shallow waters to see if we could catch any, with nets fashioned from the shirts and singlets that the men wore. The children of course did not need an invitation to follow the adults, following a few paces behind as screams of glee accompanied the sight of the silvery harvest jumping as shirts was lifted from the water.

A banded Sea Krait, similar to the one I encountered in Masai (photo credit: Craig D)

Fifteen, perhaps twenty minutes into the excited frenzy, a scream of panic burst through the shouts of excitement – “Snake, snake!” came a cry which was followed with silence before pandemonium broke as everyone made for the safety of the beach. Boys, being boys, we somehow had fun in the process, adding to the commotion with screams of “kalang-kabut, cabut” (kalang-kabut is a colloquial term that I guess can be roughly translated as a chaotic frenzy, while cabut is in this context is to run away), not realising that in the midst of all that, one of my parents’ friends, had somehow run into the path of the escaping snake (sea snakes are usually not aggressive but they do possess some of the most potent venoms which can kill a person within half an hour). Safely ashore, we watched in silence as the dark complexioned friend emerged from the water, looking pale as if he had seen a ghost, followed by one of the older boys who had somehow managed to kill the snake with a wooden plank, with the trophy of the dead black and white banded snake. A closer inspection of the leg of the poor fellow revealed two fang marks near his ankle and he was attended to by another of my parents’ friend who was a nurse and sent to a nearby clinic. Fortunately, the victim survived, it turned out that no venom had been released into the bite and other than the two marks and a fright of his life, my parents’ friend was none the worse for the encounter. After the experience, we were a lot more careful about entering the water to catch fish at night … I suppose the fish that had been attracted by the lights had also attracted snakes as well … choosing usually not to go in … on the occasions that we did, we never ventured far out, choosing to stay close to shore … and often jumping at the sight of a slithering eel…





The Singapore of my younger days (Pg 2)

18 07 2010


A collection of posts on the Singapore that I knew


School days in St. Michael’s School

First days of school

The very first days of life at school in St. Michael’s School.

Epok-Epok, sports days and the marvels of MILO

The second year in the afternoon session, memories of the epok-epok man, jolly lolly and sports days and MILO.

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The commercial heart of Singapore

Raffles Place

Raffles Place, then and now.

Five Foot Ways and Glass Displays

Memories of shopping on High Street.

Clifford Pier

The gateway to the roads that lay to the south of Singapore.

Ocean Building and the Straits Steamship Company

The curved buildings that stood at the end of Collyer Quay and the shipping company that it was home to.

The wonderland that was Battery Road

Battery Road these days bring to mind skyscrapers and bank buildings. Back in the days when I was growing up, it seemed a different world altogether – a world of old buildings that were dominated by the 16 storey Bank of China building – the only “skyscraper” there, and a wonderland of pies: the Wonderland Cafe.

Singapore Polytechnic at Prince Edward Road

The “bright” lights of Prince Edward Road and the Polytechnic by the sea: the old Polytechnic and the delicious food at the Prince Edward Road carpark.

Tanjong Pagar and the tale of the swordfish attack on Singapore

Tanjong Pagar, where the attack of the swordfish was said to have happened as recorded in the Malay Annals (the story of Singapura dilanggar todak), and memories of the triumph of J B Jeyaretnam in the 1981 General Election.

The “Corner House”: Connell House on Anson Road

Connell House and the Connell House swimming pool that I frequented in the early 1970s.

Singapore’s first overhead bridge on Collyer Quay

Where Singapore’s first overhead pedestrian bridge was located and a bit of history on the pedestrian crossing rules and signs.

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Sembawang and Nee Soon

The star of Chong Pang

The original Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea which was located at Chong Pang Village.

Sembawang, as I remember it

An introduction to the Sembawang that I once knew.

Sembawang, as it is today …

Sembawang as it is today. What’s left of the coastal villages such as Kampong Tanjong Irau and Kampong Tengah are just a few reminders.

Memories of the Old Chong Pang

The search for reminders of the old Chong Pang Village where Sembawang housing estate now stands.

More views of Old Chong Pang

A walk back in time to the Chong Pang of old.

Where a car once plunged into the sea: The Mata jetty in Sembawang

Memories of the Mata Jetty in Sembawang.

Post Offices of old

The old Post Office Buildings and the former Nee Soon Post Office building.

That old rusty red coloured building along Sembawang Road

The rusty red zinc building that was a landmark along Sembawang Road – the rubber factory that once belonged to Lim Nee Soon.

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Changi, Tanah Merah and Somapah

Changi Beach

Where we could once drive right up to the beach, and have picnics right out of the boot of the car, or wade through the waters at low tide and have a barbeque of the harvest from the sea right on the beach.

Mata Ikan

Memories of Mata Ikan where I spent many of the holidays in my pre-school days at.

Tanah Merah and Kampong Ayer Gemuruh

The idyllic Tanah Merah coastline, where David Marshall had his villa by the sea, and memories of the holiday bungalows near Kampong Ayer Gemuruh.

The Changi Village that I loved

The Changi Village of the 1960s and early 1970s, which offered an escape as well as the opportunity to chill-out at one of the eating places or take a lazy Sunday afternoon stroll at.

Fairy Point and Changi Point

The once protected holiday area where the likes of Mr Lee Kuan Yew took his holidays west of Changi Village.

The lost world of Somapah Village

The bustling village at the tenth mile of Changi Road which served as a gateway to Mata Ikan and the Tana Merah area.

The Swastika at the Tenth Mile

The Red Swastika School and its huge red swastika which never failed to catch my attention along Somapah Road.

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Queenstown

My Early Days in Commonwealth Crescent

The almost forgotten earliest days of my life spent in the Commonwealth Crescent neighbourhood of Queenstown.

The Church of the Blessed Sacrament

The Catholic Church in Queenstown which dates back to the early days of my life and the one the first house of worship that I would have entered.


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Laksa’s origins will surprise you

28 11 2017

I’ve always enjoyed a bowl of laksa. The dish, which has an amazing range of equally delectable localised variations, brings great comfort and joy to many in Malaysia, parts of Indonesia and Singapore. There is perhaps no other dish that can so strongly be identified with a locality. In its very basic form, laksa is a vermicelli like noodle in a broth.  While it can be said that it is in the countless variations of this broth, tempered by the influences of over a century, that has provided the various forms of the dish with its local flavour; its origins as a dish, how it morphed into what we see of it today, and even its rather strange sounding name, is a source of great puzzlement.

Singapore Laksa

One suggestion of how laksa got its name that has gained popularity is that it was derived from a similar sounding Sanskrit word for a hundred thousand. This, it is said, is an allusion perhaps to the multitude of ingredients that go into making the various forms of its broth the celebration of flavours that they are. I am however inclined to take the side of the suggestion that the wonderful encyclopedia of the world’s culinary delights, the Oxford Companion to Food, offers. That has the word laksa being Persian in origin. Lakhsha meaning “slippery” in old Persian, was apparently also used to describe noodles, which the book also credits the Persians with the invention of.

Sarawak Laksa

That latter suggestion will no doubt spark endless debate. There seems however to be evidence to support the assertion such as in the many noodle type dishes that are found spread across the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe – all with names that all sound very much like lakhsha. Examples of this are the Russian lapsha, the Uyghur laghman, the Jewish lokshen, the Afghan lakhchak, the Lithunian Lakštiniai, and the Ukrainian lokshina. The Italian sheet pasta dish, Lasagne, also sounds uncannily similar to old Persian for noodles.

Lokshen (photo: Danny Nicholson on Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0).

As with the variants of the Near East, Lakhsha seems to have become a similiar sounding laksa in this part of the world. Early Malay-English dictionaries, such as one published by R. J. Wilkinson in 1901, have laksa both as the word for ten thousand, as well as for a “vermicelli” – ascribing the latter’s origins to the same Persian word.  The use of the word as such is seen in several of the news articles of the day. One report, in the Malayan Saturday Post of 29 December 1928, shows how “Chinese Laksa” was then made, through a series of four photographs. As a word to describe a type of noodles, laksa is in fact very much still in use in places such as the Riau Archipelago. There, “lakse” or “laksa”, is taken as a noodle of a similar appearance to the laksa we find here made from the staple of the islands, sago.

R. J. Wilkinson’s “A Malay-English Dictionary” describes the word “laksa” both as a word for ten-thousand as well as for a kind of vermicelli.

Uyghur laghman noodles (Nate Gray on Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

There also are early descriptions of how that laksa may have been prepared in the press. One, found in a 1912 report on hawker fare in The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, describes what seems to be quite a different dish from the one we are now familiar with:

A familiar dish with the Chinese coolie and Straits school-boy is “laksa”. The vendor of this compound, vermicelli, “rats’ ears” (mush-rooms), and other things in a kind of soup, shouts out every now and then “Laksa a wun!” and many who taste it declare that it is A1.

Lakse or laksa, describes these noodles made from sago in Pulau Singkep in the Lingga group of islands in the Riau Archipelago.

One of the many ways in which laksa is served on Pulau Singkep is with a fish broth and sambal.

poem, penned in 1931 by a prominent personality Mr. Seow Poh Leng – a Municipal Commissioner and a champion of hawkers’ rights – provides an idea of how the dish had by the 1930s, started to evolve. An attempt to draw attention to the difficulties street hawkers faced, the verse also describes how a dough of ground rice became “lumps of tiny snow-white coils” when boiled and which was then “served with tasty gravy and a pinch of fragrant spice”. Published in the Malayan Saturday Post of 16 May 1931, the piece was the writer’s response to the death of a laksa vendor. The vendor had taken his own life after several run ins with the Municipal authorities that deprived him of his livelihood.

Laska Siam, served at another popular Penang laksa stall, this one at Balik Pulau.

By the 1950s, laksa as a dish, seemed to have already taken on several distinct styles. A 1951 article in The Singapore Free Press, “Let’s talk about food”, mentions two types of “Siamese” laksa: one sweet and one hot and sour, along with a “Nonya” laksa. The two variants of “Siamese” laksa are again mentioned in a 1953 Singapore Free Press article on food in Penang. The sour type “Siamese” laksa identified is perhaps the predecessor to the Penang or asam (or assam) laksa dish of today as another 1951 report, this time in The Straits Times on Penang, seems to confirm. The article draws attention to one of Penang’s attractions, Ayer Itam (now spelled Air Itam), to which the young and old would walk six miles or brave a ride on a crowded bus to. Ayer Itam, is identified as “the village with the famous Kek Lok Si”, and (a seemingly already popular) “Siamese” laksa (Air Itam is a location many in Penang flock to today for asam laksa).

A bowl of Penang or Asam Laksa.

Another version of Asam Laksa from Madras Lane in Kuala Lumpur.

What we can perhaps surmise from all of this information is that despite its shared name, laksa in its many variations are really different dishes. Built on an otherwise tasteless base of rice or sago vermicelli or a noodle substitute, how its various forms of laksa have been flavoured to excite the palate, says much about the invention and the creativity of the region’s pioneering food vendors.

Variation on a theme, Laksa Goreng (Fried Laksa), Peranakan style.

Lakse Goreng topped with crushed ikan bilis from Pulau Singkep.


A Hawker’s Lament
by Seow Poh Leng
(Malayan Saturday Post, 16 May 1931, Page 18)
We came from far Cathay, the land of old renown,
A livelihood to seek in this far-famed town.
My parents they are old but still must toil each day
My father selling bean-curds, my mother selling “kway”.
We left our home and kin to this far distant shore;
And promised to return to see them all once more,
To share with them and theirs what little we have made
By dint of patient toil, by means of honest trade.
By four o’clock each morning when you are all abed
The ‘laksa’ I’m preparing that people may be fed
I grind some rice to powder and knead it to a dough
Then press it through a sieve to a boiling pot below.
This stringy mass of flour which hardens as it boils
Is made up into lumps of tiny snow-white coils;
Then served with tasty gravy and a pinch of fragrant spice
My ‘laksa’ finds more favour than the ordinary rice.
In woven bamboo basket made up in several tiers
Are placed my tooth-some wares and the necessary gears.
In a gourd-shaped earthen vessel the ‘laksa’ simmers low,
All day aboiling gently on charcoal burning slow.
From street to street I wander, my pace a steady trot,
And bear my loaded basket as well as the steaming pot.
The noon day trade I seek and may with luck—oh rare !
Avoid the stern police who ask a certain share.
These guardians of the law with lynx eyes watch for me,
And more than do their duty unless I pay a ” fee.”
They see that I comply with what the by-laws state;
That is, whatever happens, I must itinerate.
Sometimes from sheer fatigue I pause some breath to take,
To dry my streaming sweat, to ease the limbs that ache;
And then the “Mata-mata” finds me resting there,
And forthwith to the Court I must with him repair.
And once – alas the thought! – in prison cell I lay.
The fine imposed on me was more than I could pay.
What use is there for me this arduous life to lead?
My humble cries for mercy receive but scanty heed.
By ceaseless toil I tried an honest life to lead.
If I the “tips” forget, the traffic I impede.
And for such bogus crime there is no other way –
Before the Court I’m brought and straightway made to pay.
I’ve plied my trade from childhood, the profits have been small,
Yet I would quit right gladly for any work at all,
Seek work at any distance – if only work there be
Without the constant harass and the unofficial fee.
A rickshaw puller – aye the “totee’s” job I’ll do.
I’ll go to Malacca, I’ll go to Trengganu.
Alack! my quest is vain, my faintest hope is gone;
My limbs they are weary, my heart with sorrow torn.
Good-bye the M.H.O., my last farewell to thee!
Good-bye to all M.C.’s, good-bye the I.G.P.!
You wish me back to China, you want me off the street;
Posterity shall know I die your wish to meet!
Not satisfied with fines the Magistrates impose
The dreary prison cell must add to hawkers’ woes.
My goods and property you wish to confiscate?
But here you will not win—the law will come too late!
Good-bye my parents dear, good-bye my kith and kin!
Think not the step I take a very grievous sin.
Right well I am aware of honour due to you;
And thank you from my heart for lessons wise and true.
To comfort your old age my level best I’ve tried.
My efforts seem in vain, the cruel fates decide.
I cannot stoop to crime and slur the family name,
So drink this portion dark, preferring death to shame.

A Malay laksa vendor in Penang, c. 1930s (http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline | Mrs J A Bennett Collection/National Archives of Singapore).


 





Listening to the song of the sea

11 06 2010

Sitting by a beach over the past week and listening to the sound of the waves lapping up the shore, took me back to that wonderful part of my childhood spent by the sea. It was not that I lived by the sea, but it did seem that I was never far from it, having had many wonderous moments in my early childhood along the eastern shores of Singapore. Besides the sandy Changi shoreline, to which I was introduced to at a very early age, there was another part of Singapore close to Changi, in which I had some wonderful experiences. That was where we would sometimes holiday at, a picturesque and idyllic part of Singapore that has since been lost to the massive land reclamation project that has altered much of the eastern coastline. In those days, holidays were rarely taken out of Singapore, and the government bungalows located amongst the coastal fishing villages that dotted the then shoreline running up from around where the southern boundary of Changi Airport is today up to what was the Tanah Merah area which is today right smack in the middle of Changi Ariport, were popular with many, as it was with my parents.

Spending a week by the beach brought me back in time to the wonderful moments I had by a seaside in Singapore that has long been forgotten.

The times we spent by the sea were magical ones, and somehow it was where I never seemed to be bored, which may have been reason enough for my parents to make the regular visits to the seaside that they did, given the restless soul that I was. But, my parents were themselves very fond of the seaside, and by day, the seaside was where we would often go to splash around in the sea. The sand was where I often ended up on, building sandcastles or digging pits in the sand with my spade and pail, which when close to the water’s edge, would fill up with water in which I could spend hours sitting in. Those were the days when sun block was unheard of and the most I would have on to protect myself from the sun was a hat or cap, and the hours spent in the sun always resulted in a painful sunburn, a week after which would be followed by a peeling of skin on the face, arms and back – areas which would have been most exposed to the sun. Somehow, getting sunburnt seemed to be part of the fun, although, I had a fair skinned friend who had it so bad that he had painful blisters on his back, following which his mother never allowed him into the sun again without a tee-shirt on. Playing by the sea did have other dangers besides getting sunburnt – on one occasion, a storm had been brewing and a few friends I was with had resisted many attempts by our parents to persuade us to take shelter. Somehow, we did heed the call and took shelter in one of the wooden huts which beachgoers could rent for the day, and it wasn’t a moment too soon that we did that, for the very moment we had huddled in the safety of the huts, there was a flash of light accompanied by a loud bang! Lightning had struck the very spot that my friends and I had been playing at.

Changi Beach, 1965

Changi Beach, 1965. I had an early introduction to the Sun, the Sand and the Sea.

The evenings by the sea had a magic of its own, and sitting around a fire built on twigs and leaves picked from the shore and fanned by the stiff cool land breeze. It would be where stories were exchanged by the older folks as the delicious aroma of the fruits harvested from the sea being singed by the flames rose from the fire. It was were we would stt for hours on the straw mats that we would have bought from the many vendors that we would have met on the beach, watching the flames reduced to ambers, and staring at the starry night sky from where Orion would cast his spell on me, accompanied by the soothing song of the sea.

I have always since the early introduction I had, been drawn to the seaside.

Much of what had given me that experience is lost today. Much of Changi Beach, which was by far was the best sandy stretch of beach in Singapore, has also disappeared, with only a short natural stretch of it left near the Teluk Paku area. Where we could once sit and listen to the sound of lapping waves in the shade of katapang trees to a view of tall coconut trees leaning to the sea, and rows of casurina trees that lined the shoreline, we now have to contend with the overly crowded man made beaches that over time are eaten up by the sea, listening not to lapping waves but to the rattle of the hoardes of people that descend onto the shoreline at the unnaturally landscaped East Coast Park.

The seaside is a wonderful place to start or end the day with.

As I grew up, I would always be drawn to the seaside, not so much to the ones we have here, but to places further afield. There are some, which from time to time I have the chance to see, where I could sit and listen as I always would to the song of the sea, that would bring me back to the wonderous days at a lost seaside that was much closer to home, back to a time and a place that can only be but a distant memory.

There is nothing more relaxing than listening to the sound of the lapping of waves against the shore.

The coconut fringed seaside at San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. I have been drawn to the seaside, wherever I find myself in. There are some like this one, that would bring me back in time and to a place that is only a distant memory.